While David Belasco experimented with naturalism, an overriding number of his plays are either melodramas or farces, whose strong emotion, light wit, and happy endings appealed to his audiences. Indeed, when Belasco was not writing adaptations of foreign novels and plays, he relied on a number of well-worn themes and used his Magical Realism to disguise the similarities. Many of his well-made plays feature the trials and tribulations of young lovers. His fascination with the lives of outcast women is equally evident.
On the whole, Belasco’s plays are not classics and do not even lend themselves to serious criticism. In his own day, his appeal to the emotions did as much as his wizardry in the areas of lighting and directing to guarantee his plays full houses and long runs. Today’s more sophisticated audiences would judge them overly sentimental, melodramatic, and simplistic. Yet Belasco did have an enduring impact on the theater, setting an example with his imaginative approach to extending what had become the usual boundaries of staging and his meticulous attention to the details of production.
A number of Belasco’s melodramas have historical or ethnic backgrounds. DuBarry, set in the time of Louis XV, and The Darling of the Gods, set in Japan during the samurai period, exhibit the same melodramatic characteristics as The Girl of the Golden West—slender character motivation, a romantic plot, strong appeal to the emotions, and a denouement characterized by poetic justice. Of the three heroines, DuBarry is the only one who fails to win a happy ending. The French milliner turned king’s mistress, executed by the revolutionaries as an aristocrat, does nevertheless achieve a final reunion with Cossé, her former sweetheart. Yo-San, who dies for betraying the hideout of her samurai lover’s band, meets Kara in the afterlife. Of the three, the Girl—Minnie—achieves the most enduring happiness, for although she leaves her beloved Sierra Nevada mountains, she does so in the company of Johnson, a reformed thief who has become her sweetheart. The Heart of Maryland, perhaps the most sensational of Belasco’s historical plays, features a pair of Civil War lovers divided by opposing North/South sympathies and reunited after an act of heroism on the part of Maryland Calvert herself.
Belasco’s farces were much less sumptuous in staging and considerably lighter in plot; like Lord Chumley, Naughty Anthony relies on complicated, improbable situations for its humor. Professor Anthony Depew, a teacher of moral behavior, when caught kissing one of his patients in a darkened park gazebo, gives his landlord’s name instead of his own. An incompetent lawyer, another love triangle, and a vengeful wife are coupled with what was then a mildly shocking episode in which Cora, a hosiery saleswoman, strips off her stockings onstage. Handled differently, Naughty Anthony might have succeeded as a satire of moral hypocrisy; as it stands, however, the tangled skeins of the well-made play are too much in evidence.
La Belle Russe
Belasco attempted to deal with the outcast woman in historical plays such as DuBarry and in sheer melodrama such as La Belle Russe, in which a notorious prostitute tries to profit from the good fortune of her innocent twin. La Belle Russe herself is saved by the love for her illegitimate child; similarly, in Zaza, the heroine redeems herself by becoming a great actress. Other characters, not nearly as well received, face a more realistic end.
The Heart of Maryland
A lavish and sensational Civil War melodrama, The Heart of Maryland made Belasco independent. The play, backed by Max Blieman, a dealer in art, opened on October 9, 1895, in Washington, D.C., and moved to the Herald Square Theatre in New York two weeks later for a run of 229 performances.
The property and light cues for the play show that Belasco paid extraordinary attention to detail, even visiting Maryland so that he could duplicate the atmosphere. The first scene opens on The Lilacs, a nostalgically reproduced mansion replete with fragrant lilac bushes and water lilies. In the near distance is a stream crossed by a rustic bridge; in the far appear the hills of Maryland. The plot interprets the conflict between North and South romantically: Maryland Calvert’s Northern lover is Colonel Alan Kendrick, whose father commands the Southern forces; Nanny, a sharp-witted Yankee of sixteen, is wooed by Robert Telfair, a lieutenant in the Southern artillery unit encamped at The Lilacs. Further complications arise when Colonel Thorpe, a Southern officer in the employ of the Northern Secret Service, uses the information given to him by Lloyd Calvert—Maryland’s brother, a Northern sympathizer—to further his own career rather than to warn General Hooker of General Kendrick’s advance. When Alan is brought as a prisoner to The Lilacs, Maryland, despite her strong Dixie bias, passes the information to him.
In act 2, Lloyd is killed while he is carrying information, but not before he asks his sister to detain an anonymous “friend” of his—Alan. Captured while awaiting Maryland, Alan confronts his father, who keeps his military bearing with difficulty. Maryland becomes hysterical on learning of her brother’s death and impulsively accuses his “friend” of spying. As the scene closes, she understands that she has accused her lover in order to save her brother’s name.
At the beginning of act 3, Alan is incarcerated in an old church that serves as a prison. Maryland, crossing the lines, brings a stay of execution, but Thorpe realizes that had the letter reached the now-dead Colonel Kendrick, he himself would have been indicted for spying. He brings Alan from the prison to torment him with the sight of Maryland. Alan, bound and helpless, watches as Maryland—like the operatic heroine Tosca—stabs her attacker and urges Alan to run. The climax of the scene occurs when she races up the stairs and leaps to grasp the clapper on the bell that is rung to alert the Southern artillery. As the act closes, Maryland swings back and forth on the bell, a tour de force supposedly reminiscent of Belasco’s childhood fascination with Rosa Hartwicke Thorpe’s poem “The Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight.”
The resolution in the fourth act finds Nanny nursing the wounded Telfair while the Northern troops, led by Alan, cannonade The Lilacs, where Thorpe has...
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